This article aims to reveal the archetype of vacuuming sounds. It discusses the historical and contemporary dimensions of product sounds and how many “original” sounds – or what is considered an original sound – still have a major influence on present day sound design, especially on the communication of a product to the public through advertising. It follows the vacuum cleaner’s suction sound through its history and use, as well as in current marketing and communication, by examining various systems of meaning and connotation. Even though product- or consumer-oriented product sound design involves case and user studies (Bijsterveld and Cleophas 2012), and marketing departments run tests on how consumer groups react to commercials, there is little insight from a cultural and social anthropological viewpoint into how the product’s sound and history “echoes” in product design and the communication of a product’s sound. Being one of the noisier examples of domestic appliances, the vacuum cleaner will serve as an example, leading us through the following analyses. Its sound has its own signature appeal and significance for the action of cleaning, which is revealed by advertisements. This leads to the conclusion that vacuum cleaning possesses an archetypical sound.
Why Vacuuming Sounds? The Paradox of Vacuuming Sound
Reinier Jansen of the Sound Design Group, Faculty of Industrial Design Engineering at Delft University of Technology (the Netherlands), has put into words how difficult yet relevant the vacuum cleaner’s sound is:
I think that there is a very nice paradox with vacuum cleaner sounds: you can make them very silent, but then they will not be perceived as very powerful. My perspective on domestic appliances is not to reduce the sound it makes, but to make it a better experience, and that does not necessarily mean that you have to lower the overall volume. It is important to make a vacuum cleaner sound more powerful, as this is a meaningful attribute for this type of product, because then you think: yes, it really works. (Jansen 2015: personal conversation)
Feedback concerning function and quality are important factors in the design of the device’s sound: the sound itself conveys qualities that suggest powerful performance, as Reinier Jansen has phrased it. Over time, products such as the vacuum cleaner have become associated with certain sounds, arising from the properties of materials used or the product’s engineering and production. The way the product is made shapes a product’s auditory identity and distinctiveness. These sounds become characteristic for the device and, if missing, could signal some sort of deficiency in the ears of the consumer, as if the device was broken or of low quality (Krebs 2012; Bijsterveld, Cleophas, Krebs and Mom 2014: 72ff.). “Historical” sounds, no longer mechanically or functionally necessary, are still being built into devices. They indicate a transmission of listening experiences and expectations, suggesting that listening traditions exist, out of which a materiality of sound evolves. In the effort to make products sound familiar, these listening traditions can be used to create and communicate value and reliability in a product (Spehr 2009: 11; Spehr 2008: 204).
However, questions arise: To what extent do cultural templates and traditions provide a platform for sound design? What are the historical, social or economic contexts within which sounds are being constructed for products? How are the meanings and aesthetic evaluations of sounds developed and reproduced? How does gender stereotyping, especially relevant in the context of household devices, influence the communication of product sound design? And finally, how do certain archetypes of product sounds evolve, and how are they used in communication?
In this article, I will examine two significant tendencies in vacuum cleaner sound design with particular attention for media representation and communication. The paradox of sound design for vacuum cleaners mentioned by Reinier Jansen will appear in the systemization of the examples discussed.
Why research on advertisements? Marketing as Cultural Practice
Drawing upon the work of sociologist Eva Illouz, Karin Bijsterveld has demonstrated that commercials, in this particular case for automobiles, serve as “instructions” for the perception of certain sounds, as “scores for how we, as consumers, should ‘feel’ particular cars and experience the sounds they bring with them” (Bijsterveld, Cleophas, Krebs and Mom 2014: 168). Therefore, advertisements transmit distinct sonic codes that influence future use and perception of the object. Besides introducing new products and displaying a world of images and sounds suggesting how the product is supposed to be seen and experienced, advertisements are also used to present arguments against any perceived shortcomings of certain products. The way images, stories, and emotional as well as social content are employed forms the basis for this analysis of a particular culture of displaying things, attitudes, and knowledge, thus also exposing how what sounds “right” or “wrong” is communicated within product advertisements.
Advertisements of various kinds are part of a culture of staging and usually bring to light topics of significance. Not only do advertisements present stories and images of things, they are also part of the construction of “appropriate” sounds of products. Historical advertisements can reveal differences between contemporary and historical hearing and help to answer questions about the different ways a product was meant to be heard and listened to and what meaning its sound had for users. By contrast, simply listening to the recorded sounds of a historic vacuum cleaner and comparing these recordings with today’s vacuum cleaner sounds does not provide enough material for the contextualization of a sound, since this material alone would be inadequate for conveying the way people heard the sound in its time, a problem many researchers have addressed. Daniel Morat, for example, suggests focusing on the historization and contextualization of historical sounds (Morat 2013: 139). A listening comparison alone would not be adequate, as communication situations, which might include humor or emotional coloring, are difficult to reconstruct without other material at hand, such as accompanying storylines, pictures, videos or circumstances relevant to the setting of a device and its sound. A cultural anthropologic and ethnographic approach towards objects, e.g. via the analysis of commercials, is of great importance when studying the sound of everyday “stuff,” the term anthropologist Daniel Miller uses for objects of everyday use (Miller 2012: 70ff.).
The present article aims to show and discuss the archetypical sound of vacuum cleaning with its inherent silent-but-noisy paradox and symbolic meaning, which is communicated, actively shaped, and produced through the product marketing. Therefore, this paper looks at commercials as representatives of cultural commons, acoustic traditions, and audio-visual artifacts. Marketing activities which communicate sound are understood to be an integral part of product sound design, as sound is a factor of product quality appraised by “good” or “right.”
The selection of product and advertising examples presented here has been shaped by my research in Northern Europe, with a strong focus on Germany, as there are many agencies and companies employing sound design. The chosen advertisements have been translated and used in different countries by international market leaders such as Siemens, Rowenta, and Bosch. The videos were selected during research into about 150 advertisements available in online media (YouTube, Vimeo, and such). Interviews with product sound designers and other ethnographic research material has been left out in this paper.
 For one of the few research projects on the cultural analysis of product sound design, see Holger Schulze’s DFG Project Functional Sounds.
Why a research on Product Sound Design? Design as Cultural Expression
Research on product sound design is discussed primarily in disciplines close to the industry: applied design, psychoacoustics, or industrial engineering (Bijsterveld and Pinch 2012: 7). While the contents of literature in these disciplines are highly interesting in terms of discovering material and investigations into the “what are they doing?,” they do not provide much insight into the “how are they doing it?” The industry is the main actor in the design process and in the communication of the product. Underlying aesthetic preferences of designers and developers are at times not easy to distinguish. Furthermore, differing understandings of the functions of sound design can clash, especially when looking at psycho-acoustical engineering approaches and anthropological research, as the following example will show.
In German patent no. 10114634 “Active sound design for vacuum cleaners” (Aktive Geräuschgestaltung bei Staubsaugern), filed in 2001, engineers Bodden and Iglseder describe their invention:
[EN] Active noise design for vacuum cleaners to provide interesting, useful information to users involves synthesizing noise by chaining stored data of naturally occurring impact noise [...] Natural sounds arising when sucking up large particles such as crumbs are synthesized and reproduced.
The patent text goes on: “Through sound, the user is provided with an intuitive feedback that requires no further knowledge and which can be unambiguously interpreted.” The patent text declares that the sound of bigger particles being sucked up through the pipe of the vacuum cleaner is intuitively understandable and can hardly be misunderstood. Approaching this from a cultural anthropological perspective, it seems unlikely that the hearing performance is intuitive, but by all means learned, trained, and culturally incorporated (Volmar and Schröter 2013: 15; Hengartner 2003). Listening to a sound and being able to identify it as the sound of a functioning and high quality vacuum cleaner is a value judgment based on cultural customs, relying on user competence and knowledge concerning the device’s sound. There exists an exact idea of sound, which is the baseline for forming an opinion about the sounds of a particular device while it is running. Consumers have expectations about how a Porsche should sound, how a fresh cookie needs to sound, and also how a vacuum cleaner ought to sound. Sound designers have professional and cultural knowledge about those objects and their sounds, as this knowledge is imbedded in their own culture, and they seek creativity and inspiration from their own cultural backgrounds. Through exposure, consumers develop knowledge and competence regarding sounds, and with this user competence and knowledge, customs and traditions of sound are being reproduced. Sound design, as it is understood in the example from the patent archive, is sound implementation, often involving a “tweaking” of the sounds customarily made by the object, a perspective mainly taken by engineers. This approach lacks the perspective that sound design is a way of communicating through sound with a sound’s history, its stories, connotations, and meanings: sound design as cultural expression. The artifacts resulting from professional activities – products, their sounds, but also representations like advertisements – need to be discussed and considered as cultural actors.
From this point of view, the relevance of cultural anthropological research in sound design seems obvious. Qualitative research methods, including interviews and participant observation, as well as the cultural analysis of the artifacts and their media representations offer much more knowledge and insight into the structures and processes of product sound design. Karin Bijsterveld and her team’s activities around the research on product sound design have shown the ways in which “increasing personalization, ‘aetheticization,’ and ‘emotionalization’ of commodities in today’s experience society and its style of emotional capitalism” through sound design (cars in this case) has been achieved by the industry (Bijsterveld, Cleophas, Krebs and Mom 2014: 19).
Another important discussion point is the main criticism product sound design faces: its manipulation of the buyer. Axel Volmar and Jens Schröter have pointed out that the argument that sound invades our brains directly, while visual stimulation can be filtered through attention, is just a repetition of an outdated ranking of the senses (Volmar and Schröter 2013: 13). This mere prejudice cannot provide guidance for analysis; instead it would be of much more significance for sound studies to acknowledge sounds as a part of a consumer culture that needs to be researched anthropologically, sociologically, and ethnographically. But the manipulation allegation leads to another closely related prejudice: the antagonism between “them,” the producers, and “us,” the consumers. This can often be found in media coverage, but also in many smaller research projects, which seem to be only reproducing the allegation of manipulation and a general distrust of a society characterized primarily by production and consumption (Schillig 2003).
First Perspective: Convenience and Noise Reduction
In the following, I give examples of the ways in which the sound of a vacuum cleaner is problematic for the device, focusing on the social aspects of noise reduction in historic examples and the focus on convenience and stress reduction in newer product design, which is actually not so new, as we will see.
Advertisement Protos Vacuum Cleaner 1935, Cover. Siemens Corporate Archives.
On this front page of a brochure for a Siemens vacuum cleaner from 1935, you can see a young woman dressed in typical 1920s or 30s fashion, cleaning a lampshade. Her toddler puts her ear on the vacuum cleaner, amazed by the stillness of the device. Even at a young age, there seems to be an immediate understanding of how a vacuum cleaner should sound. The toddler seems to recognize that this vacuum cleaner is acoustically unusual.
Advertisement Protos Vacuum Cleaner 1935, Inside. Siemens Corporate Archives.
The inside of the brochure describes the quietness of and the expanded area of application for the device.
The whispering, red Siemens Protos Super Vacuum Cleaner [...] is the modern cleaning device for the highest (cleaning) standards. It combines quick and thorough cleaning with active noise reduction and a solid functional shape with a classy appearance. In places where quiet is required during the day, it gains more and more friends, especially among intellectual workers: writers, artists, lawyers, architects, teachers, journalists, musicians; with doctors and dentists, as it does not disturb the consultation hours; in hospitals and sanatoriums; in libraries and classrooms; and in museums and exhibitions. In hotels and bed & breakfasts, it is even used at night. (Author’s translation)
This advertisement communicates ideas about sound in two ways: on the one hand, noise is implicitly addressed through the picture. Through the astonishment of the child, it suggests that other vacuum cleaners are usually not as quiet as the one being promoted. It exposes preexisting knowledge about the typical sounds of vacuum cleaners, which even a small child is capable of knowing, and presumes that its viewers share this knowledge. Communication through this commercial relies on the cognitive skills of the viewers to decipher the body poses of the persons shown and their ability to contextualize these poses in terms of the sound of the device. In comparison with other commercials, it seems that in 1935, or in the 1930s in general, noise is a main feature when it comes to communication about a product’s sound. This commercial aims to present the vacuum cleaner as an exceptionally quiet one, and that tells us more about the desire for quieter and thus “better” or “superior” vacuum cleaners than it does about the actual volume or sound quality. Taking a casual look into 1930s technology, it can be reasonably excluded that this vacuum cleaner was in fact as noise-free or inaudible as the child’s pose suggests. It might also be considered very optimistic to talk about a whispering vacuum cleaner. However, sound is employed as the main actor of this advertisement’s storyline. It works due to a shared knowledge about the sound that is intelligible to all viewers. Additionally, the advertisement follows a general trend concerning noise reduction and noise abatement.
The necessity of a quiet vacuum cleaner in many different professional settings is the second way of communicating about sound in this advertisement. This touches on a different discussion surrounding noise abatement, which can only briefly be mentioned within the scope of this article (see, for instance, Bijsterveld 2008, Thompson 2013, and Payer 2013). Not only does the commercial suggest that its target group earns well, but it also openly claims that a quiet product is more suitable for an especially intellectual target group, enabling them to keep working while the device being used, their need for stillness undisturbed.
Notions of gender are revealed through both of the ways in which sound is communicated. Men working in professional services are (not) being disturbed, while it is the cleaning wife (with her ostensibly female child, as vacuuming was considered a female activity) in the domestic sphere, or, most commonly, women in the professional sphere, who are the source of (male) irritation here. In this example, a home scene being the most obvious interpretation of this image, it is not the noise from the streets, not the cleaning woman who cannot understand the need for quiet working spaces, not the drunk workers singing on the street, but it is the wife who is now, after the electronic revolution and the reduction of human-performed household services through automatization and electrification, disturbing and distracting the professionally-working men. So in this commercial, it is not the women who are relieved by the pleasant quietness of the new vacuum cleaner, but the relief comes to others, since she is no longer disturbing them through the unnerving sound of her housekeeping. This raises further questions on gender and gendered hearing in product sound design, especially in household equipment, which will be discussed throughout the sections of this article.
The commercial presents the vacuum cleaner as a novelty on the market and as an exception to the rule, which carries the message that the quietness of the device is exceptional – quiet, but at the same time powerful and efficient. The exception leads to the general rule: The louder the device, the more powerful it is – or, as Karin Bijsterveld has put it, noise is “a sign of strength, power and progress” (Bijsterveld 2008: 236). This consumer expectation still holds true, as the quote from Reinier Jansen has shown, and as the following product marketing examples will demonstrate.
Rowenta Silence Force Extreme Cyclonic.
Posted on Youtube by Rowenta International on 3 December 2013.
Power kann auch leise sein – Power can be quiet too! This recent example from a commercial shows what are considered “powerful” images and their consequent sounds: human brute force in the form of a bodybuilder screaming; powerful machines, such as high-speed trains, jets, or a jackhammer; natural forces, such as the sounds of waves crashing into a stone lighthouse, water pounding the ground at the bottom of a waterfall, a volcano erupting; and buffalos butting heads with a loud thump. In the commercial, these images are contrasted with a vacuum cleaner with the claim that it is, in fact, possible to build a quiet vacuum cleaner which is still powerful. There is an assumption concerning the intrinsic noise of a powerful vacuum cleaner, an expectation that equates power with volume. The commercial capitalizes on its audience’s biases concerning the sound of power and juxtaposes these images and sounds with something new: quietness in the act of vacuuming. In a way, this marketing of convenience through the commodification of “silence” is just what Murray R. Schafer demands when he writes about “repairs to the soundscape” (Schafer 1994: 240) that future sound designers will need to perform. What this example shows most strikingly is the paradox of vacuuming sounds mentioned earlier by Reinier Jansen. The vacuuming function needs power for proper functioning, but at the same time there is a desire for the sound to be as quiet, and therefore as accommodating, as possible.
 Patent Number 10114634, 2001, Markus Bodden and Heinrich Iglseder. Deutsches Patent- und Markenamt.
 “Dem Nutzer wird eine intuitive und ohne weiteren Lernprozeß unmißverständlich richtig interpretierbare Rückmeldung gegeben.”
Second Perspective: Loudness as a Symbol for Power
The following example works with a similar story and image of sound: the racing car sound.
Posted on Youtube by bressofb’s channel on 8 October 2011.
This slapstick commercial from the early 1990s conveys a similar idea about the vacuum cleaner’s power through its employment of sound. When started, the (animated) vacuum cleaner is so powerful that it drags the user through his entire apartment. It speeds around corners, pulls him up the stairs, and comes to a screeching halt after the job is done. The actual sound of the device is replaced by the sound of racing cars. An accelerating motor, squealing brakes, pinging and zooming noises allude to the dynamics of a racing car, the alter ego of the vacuum cleaner. The sounds go hand in hand with the visual design of the vacuum cleaner, with its Superman colors, also seeming to be targeted toward a young audience.
The soundscape of the commercial is geared towards the male consumer. It draws from the discussion about gender in advertising, seemingly twisting stereotypes around, but at the same time reproducing them with the wish to communicate within the typical application of gender roles and work division in households. In this case, the commercial borrows heavily from the soundtracks and style of animated film and slapstick - for example, “Bugs Bunny,” “Loony Tunes” or early “Donald Duck” comic films – suggesting that cleaning is fun, “even” for males and not only a tedious task left to women. The commercial is thus allowing the male consumer to feel the fun of cleaning while he watches the commercial and to make the male viewer feel that cleaning can be an exercise through which he can master the “challenge,” unlike the inept protagonist in the film who is seemingly not yet accustomed to his task. A shift, in certain levels of society, toward acceptance of non-traditional family models in the 1990s as well as shifts in the traditional division of work in the domestic sphere function as a societal backdrop in front of which the commercial uses humor to sell the product, laughing at the man who cannot control the strength of the vacuum cleaner.
It is obvious that the actual sound of your new vacuum cleaner will not be that of a racing car. But the actual sounds will, nevertheless, be associated with the sounds and the story of the commercial. The vacuum cleaner's sound is tied to a world of sound associations filled with symbolic utterances of power and dynamism. Thus, product attributes are fabricated to intensify the perceived capabilities of the machine and leave the consumer with the impression of purchasing a powerful device. A silent Comic Vacuum Cleaner would leave the consumer disappointed. The commercial suggests the “right” sounds through its acoustically transported story, presenting fun, as well as power and performance, through noisy and energetic sounds. Also, as in many other advertisements, the video is employing sonic codes that touch on and add to preexisting expectations and knowledge about vacuum cleaners, allowing commercials to play with this knowledge.
The examples so far have illustrated how authentic vacuuming sound can be replaced by other sounds in advertisements. However, the exclusion of the vacuuming sound in advertising actually shows how important that sound is. It also demonstrates how the industry attempts to link the noise of vacuuming with other, more loaded, sounds or images, adding more layers of meaning to a sound’s qualities and, thus, influencing perceived product qualities. On the other hand, there is a tendency in more recent commercials to showcase sound, making it the, almost overemphasized, centerpiece of the story.
Posted on Youtube by Dyson Deutschland on 29 April 2015.
This advertisement for a Dyson V6 vacuum cleaner shows a messy bachelor’s apartment. The protagonist hurries home to survey his messy apartment, which needs to be turbo-cleaned in the approximately ten minutes - suggested by prominent shots of watches and clocks – before his date arrives. The apartment is seen to be full of “male mess” attributes, like pizza slices, beer bottles, Chinese takeout, and PlayStation controllers on the floor. The man tackles the task and manages to clean the mess and straighten his tie just in time for the last flip of the clock and the ring of the doorbell. The commercial uses extreme sounds for the communication of control, engineering savvy, power, and efficiency. The techniques of the commercial seem to be borrowed from action or even military films, working with sound effect “close-ups” of steps, squeaking door, the ticking watch and the dynamic wind-sounds suggesting ultra-quick, efficient movement. Furthermore, the accentuated and quick shifting between the noise of the outdoor cityscape and the luxurious quiet of his secure apartment suggests wealth and privilege. When on, the vacuum produces penetrating, high, drill-like sounds, noisily sucking up the particles in the messy living room and kitchen of the protagonist. Also, the handling of the vacuum cleaner draws upon the connotations of the sounds used. When changing a component of the vacuum cleaner, it is staged almost like handling a gun, not only through the movements, but especially through the sharp and clear sounds, suggesting clinking metals and solidly-locking construction parts. In this advertisement campaign, the producers seem to follow a focused use of sound, leaving music completely out of the acoustic design and emphasizing the sound of the multi-purpose machine itself. By picking elements of film contexts mentioned, the commercial suggests a male role model who is unfazed and in control of the task (unlike the protagonist of the Siemens Comic Vacuum Cleaner) and who owns the right equipment, the Dyson Vacuum Cleaner, to do the “mission impossible”: clean the mess in less than ten minutes. The figure or type of protagonist is mastering a problem that generations of women have dealt with, all with the superior help of the product advertised here, at least according to the predominant stylistic subtext of the commercial.
The last two commercials seem to be in direct contrast to the first advertising sound design presented above, with its muting and quieting of what is understood to be noise and explicit marketing of the convenience provided by the stillness of the device. This divergence might be partially explained by the social and, most significantly, gendered target groups. Commercials for household equipment still communicate in gendered tropes, but the implementation of sound as being determined in part by gendered hearing and gendered acoustic communication might also be influenced by a look at more subtle product sound design communications, for which it is interesting to look further into the actual sounds of the products, not only their staged representation in advertising.
The archetypical sound of the vacuum cleaner
Posted on Youtube by Saatchi Netherlands on 5 June 2014.
 The style of the commercials reminds the viewer of popular action movies, with the “classical” plots and scenes of missions to be completed, through which the hero or a taskforce advances, be it in the casino robbery (as in for example movies like Ocean’s Eleven), actual battlefields as in military movies, or when changing showdown settings (as, for example, in James Bond films).
 Another commercial arising from this marketing campaign is the V6 Dog commercial. In the first part, it shows a dog spending the day at home alone, playfully (and supremely staged, featuring Mozart’s “Overture” to the Marriage of Figaro) making everything dirty. When the female owner returns home during the second part, she sighs and commences cleaning up the various messes with her multipurpose vacuum cleaner. Its sounds suggest efficient cleaning and controlled handling of the device. Even though the sounds of the vacuum cleaner appear to be nearly the same, the symbolic effect these sounds have compare very differently to those in the commercial with the male protagonist completing his “cleaning mission.” For example, the connotation of gun sounds, as in the commercial discussed above, does not immediately come to mind in the commercial with the female protagonist and her efficient cleaning, mainly due to the overall setting of the video. Gender stereotyping thus also arises as a main actor in the storyline of this advertisement.
The perception and validation of a product’s sound is rooted in the product’s history and the stories and connotations surrounding both the object and its sounds, created, formed, and reinforced over time. The effect of acoustic culture on the design of objects and subsequent marketing might have a bigger influence on the perception of products than usually acknowledged by psycho-acoustical studies and should be carefully considered when looking at or listening to sound design, especially from cultural analytical perspectives.
We have seen how commercials – in the 1930s as well as more recent ones from the 1990s and 2010s – use a complex system of symbolic meanings and connotations to transport messages through sound. An interesting field of conflict arises: the dissonance between (post)modern desires for comfort, delivered through silence, and listening traditions that connect loudness to power.
Returning to one of the examples of vacuum cleaner advertisements mentioned above, we have seen and heard not only visual and acoustic allusions to power alongside a mutual striving for quiet, we have also discovered it in a particularly paradoxical product name: the Rowenta Silence Force Extreme Cyclonic. Furthermore, by using “loud images,” the quiet vacuum cleaner advertisement puts into play sideline acoustic stimulations (which might be expressed as over-stimulations). It connects to the discourse around noise pollution, which has achieved a new peak in, for instance, current discussions about the sounds of electric vehicles. The vacuum cleaner’s sound performs specific functions, providing information about the device’s proper working: the constant hissing air passing through the hose, feedback on the success and quality of vacuuming through the sound of dirt hitting the walls of the hose, and, in the worst case, warning a user that the device is broken through abnormal sounds. It can deliver these messages with the “language” of different semiotic codes, for example through the images of convenience, of quietness, and of peaceful cleaning as a relaxing domestic activity. On the other hand, there is the use of sound as a means of control, power, and strength. All of these values connect to the question of why sound design exists in the first place: to enhance the quality of feedback. Sounds are shaped to inform the user about the product, offering practical information about correct use, but they also contain meta-information about the product’s general quality and performance. Sound can thus communicate function through loud and roaring sounds, deriving meaning from the symbolic worlds of machinery, power, and efficiency. In both cases, however, quiet and loud, there is the inescapable allure of the archetypical vacuuming sound and a tribute to the power of acoustics.
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